Jewish Journal

Shazbot, shalom

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

August 12, 2014 | 11:59 am

The modern Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik put it this way:

There was a man -- and see: he is no more!
Before his time did this man depart
And the song of his life in its midst was stilled
And alas! One more tune did he have
And now that tune is forever lost
Forever lost!

I miss Robin Williams already. He was probably America’s best-loved comedian, and one of our most beloved entertainers. He was hysterically funny. His talents went way beyond comedy. And he was a mensch. 

What does it take to become a mensch? According to a Yiddish proverb, a mensch only becomes a mensch because he/she struggles. 

This is about Robin Williams’ struggle – a struggle that mostly took place behind closed doors, and behind the mask of hilarity that he presented to the world. It would be redemptive if Robin Williams' death might prompt us to seriously confront how we, as a Jewish community, deal with mental illness. It’s not only depression. It’s also bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia, and PTSD – not to mention the entire range of addictions. Askenazic Jews are particularly vulnerable to what Andrew Solomon called "the noonday demon." It's in our genes. It is part of who we are. 

Go back to the Bible. Moses seemed to have struggled with a kind of depression – at least, at the moment when he seemed ready to surrender to his inner despair (Numbers 11:11).

There was, of course, King Saul (more on him later). The prophet Elijah seems to have suffered from depression. He flees from the homicidal wrath of Queen Jezebel, finds himself at Horeb (Mount Sinai), and crawls into a cave -- either crawling back into the womb or looking forward to the tomb (I Kings 19). Some say that the prophet Ezekiel struggled with mental illness. The Psalmist had his demons. Just one example: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? (Psalms 42:11)

The great theologian and physician, Maimonides, knew something about depression. Following the lead of the ancient Greeks, he believed that it, along with headaches, was caused by “black bile.” (Fred Rosner, The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides, 111). Many Hasidic rebbes struggled with depression. Elie Wiesel devoted his book Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy to their stories. http://www.amazon.com/Struggle-Melancholy-Ward-Phillips-Lectures-Literature/dp/0268009473Reb Nachman of Breslov famously battled the forces of depression, and his prayers and meditations are “gentle weapons” in that struggle. http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-022-3

Read Zionist and Israeli history, and you will read a history of depression. Theodor Herzl was given to bouts of inner darkness, and he passed on this tragic legacy to his children and grandchildren. Moshe Dayan struggled with depression; when he was Army Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin suffered a nervous breakdown.

Finally, there is the history of depression in secular Jewish culture -- from Kafka to Woody Allen, whose working title for "Annie Hall" had originally been "Anhedonia."

For all these reasons, and more, it is long past time for American Jews to start lifting the veil of secrecy, shame and stigma that presently covers our approach to mental illness. If we truly intend for our synagogues and other institutions to be places of healing, then mental health needs to become part of our larger conversation.

Certainly, our traditional liturgy is far from coy about the subject; consider the fact that the mi sheberach prayer for healing asks God for refuat ha-nefesh (a healing of the soul, of the inner life) even before it asks for refuat ha-guf (healing of the body). If someone goes skiing and puts too much strain on a leg and breaks it, there's no shame. And if someone puts too much strain on her soul, and breaks it, let there be no shame as well.

Back to King Saul. Saul was the first king of the ancient kingdom of Israel, and he struggled with something akin to manic-depression. That was how David first entered the court of Saul; he would play his harp for him, thus soothing his moods – with mixed results.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, love stories in the Bible is about the love that existed between David and Jonathan, the son of King Saul. It was, said David himself, "a love that surpassed the love of women." 

Why did Jonathan love David so much? The Bible never tells us. 

When David killed the Philistine giant Goliath, Saul greets pubicly greets him and asks: "Whose son are you, young man?” Translation: who are you? (I Samuel 17:58)

David could have answered: “What do you mean, ‘whose son are you, young man?’ Haven’t I been doing music therapy for you all these years? You’re a broken, pitiful man. How dare you pretend that you don’t know me?!?”

But, as Andre Neher wrote, that is precisely what David didn’t do. He refused to let on how he knew Saul. He refused to divulge Saul's secret -- that he struggled with depression, and worse. For if David had done so, the people would have torn Saul apart, and Saul would have lost everything.

Out of compassion for Saul – Saul, who was insanely jealous of David’s growing popularity; Saul, who had tried to kill him several times -- David remained silent. He refused to humiliate Saul. 

That is why Jonathan loved David.  David knew about Saul's inner life and his inner struggle, and even though Saul had tried to kill him, David had compassion for him.

Back to Robin Williams.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) tells the story that, one day, when Rabbi Baroka was in the marketplace, he encountered Elijah and asked him: “Who among these people will have a share in the world to come?” Elijah pointed to two men, and replied: “Those two.” Baroka asked them: “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are clowns. When we see someone who is sad, we cheer him up. When we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”

Right about now, Robin Williams is sitting in the World To Come. The Holy One, “who in enthroned in the heavens and laughs” (Psalm 2:4), is about ready to, as they say, bust a gut.

But what killed Robin Williams – his inner demons – is no laughing matter. He was not the sole soldier in that battle.

The best memorial that we could erect for Robin Williams?

A Jewish community that takes his struggle, and the struggle of so many, seriously.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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